There are restaurants which evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, even if you've never dined there before. You can look around at the picture-lined walls or the spots near the counter where the linoleum has rubbed away and know that you are only a small speck of the humanity that this place has served over the years. It's a sense of perspective that's both startling and comforting.
It's how I felt the first time I walked into C&D Burger Shoppe in South Houston. I'd never eaten there before, but it seemed like coming home. And it's how I feel every time I walk into Bellaire Broiler Burger, where even my many years of accumulated memories are no match for the decades more that seem to cling thickly to every surface in the restaurant. (Although it's more likely that those are just years of broiler grease build-up.)
And even though Houston isn't the type of city to tenaciously hold onto, or even build upon, its [relatively] short history, there are at least a few restaurants left in town where you can step back in time and catch a glimpse of how life in the Bayou City used to be.
Honorable Mention (because there are just too many good places to list): Another Time Soda Fountain in Rosenberg, New York Bagel & Coffee Shop in Meyerland and LaKing's Confectionery in Galveston, a must-visit during any trips to the Strand.
10. Burger Park
Burger Park has been serving the South Park and Sunnyside communities for so long, it's even endured a street name change in its 44-year history. South Park Boulevard is now MLK Boulevard, but very little else at Burger Park has changed -- including the prices. Expect to pay only a few bucks for one of the 400 to 500 burgers it turns out every day, and that includes a bag of fresh, hot fries and a slush in your choice of tongue-turning flavors.
One of the few constants in Houston since I was a child is the fact that a long night of partying is best wound down over cottage fries and a slice of Bayou Goo pie in a plastic booth at House of Pies. Despite a string of fancier late-night places that have come and gone over the years, House of Pies is still a favorite in those wee small hours of the morning.
The wood paneling on the walls is probably petrified by now, so long has Bellaire Broiler Burger haunted the intersection of Bissonnet and Bellaire. It's at least a third of the charm here. The rest of the charm is made of equal parts gruff old ladies manning the grills and unremarkable burgers that are transformed through the twin powers of cheese and chili. Alison Cook said it best about Bellaire Broiler Burger 18 years ago: "...thinnish chili and cheddar cheese turn gray, unsucculent patties into magnificent overachievers; the vintage wood paneling and booths make them taste even better."
The sign promising "Steaks, Shakes and Pancakes" outside Dot Coffee Shop only hints at the splendor inside the the low-slung, river rock-covered restaurant in Gulfgate that's been serving all three since 1967. The interior is a perfectly preserved slice of mod Houston, complete with original chandeliers, reflecting the design aesthetic of the time and one of the few reminders of how the original Gulfgate Mall once looked.
The best thing about Yale Street Grill isn't its excellent chicken fried steak nor its strong diner coffee nor the smiling waitresses who have been serving both for decades. It's how -- despite the rest of the Heights changing around it, and despite an antiques store replacing the old pharmacy on one side of the restaurant -- it's still a neighborhood gathering place and has been for generations. There's even a Santa Claus at Christmas for the kids.
Although there are now a dozen Perry's steakhouses around Houston, there's nothing that can beat the first location on Scarsdale. It originally opened as a family-run butcher shop in 1979 and it still is -- except now, you can eat its killer steaks and pork chops right there on the premises. Order from the butcher counter at lunch, or come at night for a slightly more refined experience.
A faded T-shirt hangs from one wood-paneled wall over a decades-old jukebox at C&D. "I Survived Alicia," reads the shirt's ironed-on bubble letters, as if you needed any other indication that this South Houston burger joint was a relic of the 80s. Like Burger Park, prices here are retro, but the burgers are better, the service is friendlier and the Frito pies are sheer, Little League-inspired magnificence.
3. City Cafe
Depending on which side of the house you sit in, City Cafe is either a throwback to the late '80s or the mid '50s. It's the latter that I prefer, and not just because you can smoke (!) on that side of the building (although the anachronistic sight of cigarettes and coffee at City Cafe's long diner counter is pretty mesmerizing). It's because this side is closer to the bustling kitchen, steam table and counter, which ensures you'll get plenty of sassy service and people-watching in while you wait for your golden malted waffles at breakfast.
2. Barbecue Inn
The phone at Barbecue Inn rings off the hook in the evenings as neighborhood residents call in to-go orders of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. If the ringing of the phone sounds oddly retro, that's because the restaurant still uses a wall-mounted rotary phone, curly cord and all. The waitresses have all been there since well before I was born, and the recipes likely haven't changed in that same timespan, and that's exactly what makes the classic comfort food here so reliably good.
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1. Triple A
Triple A almost shouldn't be in the middle of Houston, right inside Loop 610, so small-town is its entire feel. Tucked next to Canino's on Airline, it seems more like the type of diner you run across in East Texas, attached to a livestock auction or right next door to the farm supply store. The excellent CFS, worn linoleum floors, wizened waitresses and country clientele only underscore this aesthetic, all of which combine to make Triple A the finest throwback restaurant in the city.